Shirley – General Manager

Shirley has been with CRS for 25 years. She completed her Post Graduate Diploma in Social Work at the University of Canterbury and did two placements at CRS in 1995, before being offered employment with the agency. She worked as a Social Worker and Senior Social Worker before becoming General Manger in 2015.

When Shirley first became involved with CRS, the agency was called Family Resettlement Support Project. Originally, there was a Cambodian Social Worker and a couple of Cambodian Bilingual Workers, as well as an English language programme for parents, and child care. These programmes were the foundation of the agency and still exist today, with the exception of the English language programme.

Shirley says the agency was created because there was a need that was seen by the community. “The agency has grown from being a very small agency, because the need was seen by the community and the community responded and created this amazing service. So really we just had that baton handed onto us, I think there’d been a bit of a baton where each person coming into work and the agency has learned from the people who were here before, and we’ve all built the agency really, all of us. Our staff, our clients as well, the feedback we get from them, we try to tailor, we try to respond to the feedback we get so we’re being responsive and relevant and fit that into what the funders want us to do as well.”

“I think the lovely thing about it, because we were really grounded from that refugee background work, we’ve got credibility in the refugee communities, the refugee communities background know about us and who we are and can access us. Migrant background people do a lot of work outside of the client work, I’ve collaborated with community organisations and other services and ethnic community groups, so we’ve got good connections with some of those ethnic community groups, so that credibility comes with that work we do. We’re in lots of collaborations across the sector, whether it’s within the refugee migrant sector or whether its across social services and health sectors as well. So we do a lot of advocacy to ensure people are culturally competent and working with interpreters and all of those things.

Shirley says one of the main highlights of being with the agency is having ex-clients join the team as employees. “People go through a support process and then come to a point in their lives when they feel like they can help and give back.” She also says increasing the agency’s reach into ethnic communities has been a highlight.

“Last financial year, 69 ethnic groups were represented in the clients that we supported.”

The diversity of the staff has also increased, with 23 different ethnic groups represented in the team. Shirley also appreciates having trust from funders, enabling the agency to continue to do important work in the communities.

“The other highlight would just be the feedback that we get for the work we do from the clients. Having the client’s voice in our feedback, having the client’s voice in our annual reports, we try really hard to keep clients centred,” Shirley says.

A challenge for Shirley initially was racism. “When I first started in this work, racism in Christchurch was pretty tangible. I saw how services talked to people with disrespect. That was a challenge because part of social work is that you are advocating, you’re looking at social justice, you’re not just working with that person, but you’re trying to affect change in systems to make life better for people, for all people. That’s part of what we do. I’m really pleased to say that that’s changed hugely. Over the years that has changed a lot.”

Shirley says despite challenges that have been thrown at the agency over the years, she remains optimistic.

“There’s been lots of challenges, but that’s only a reflection of the challenges that the community face. It’s not about us, it’s about how can we support these communities. As long as we keep focused on them, that’s what keeps us doing what we do.”

Shirley says she feels like she travels the world every day at CRS. “I feel absolutely privileged to learn what I learn about the communities we work with. I’m learning so much about people from all round the world that I would never ever get the opportunity to do if I didn’t do this work. This is how we learn, from those conversations we have with people every day. It’s a wonderful place to work.”

Shirley says she appreciates the support of CRS’ Board. “Having a really strong Board is a highlight as well, we’ve always had a strong board, regardless of who moves on and comes in.”

On the 30th Anniversary, Shirley says, “I wish it another 30 years, multiplied by 30. I just hope the agency can keep going, supporting refugee and migrant background people because the communities need something like CRS, they need an organisation that is culturally competent and relevant and accessible. I just hope the agency can continue because it is needed.”

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